A shadow against our sunny day in Rome.
We’d emerged from the tunnel crossing below the street to St. Peters basilica, and I paused. The form materialized into an arched back, dirt-crusted hands, and a tattered black veil.
The group continued ahead of me as I felt through my jacket. Hungry fingers scratched my empty pockets. It was the end of our trip, and I’d given away all euros I had.
I bowed my head to her. My hands, like hers, held only air and a prayer.
I quickened my pace to re-join my group. My friend glanced over at me. His eyebrows scrunched.
“You smiled, but a frown flickered across your face,” he said later. “And I knew something was wrong. Then I saw her.”
He turned around and went to the woman. He spoke to her. She answered in mumbled Italian; my friend only knew English. As he blessed her with his words, though, he handed her a crumbled euro bill.
At the same time, he blessed me.
The corners of my mouth lifted. In that moment he made up for what I was lacking, using his strength to complement my weakness. My friend saw my need—and HER need—and he filled it. In a simple way, he was my partner in God’s mission that day.
“How wonderful it would be,” Pope Francis said in his recent surprise appearance at the TED 2017 conference, “while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and the sisters orbiting around us.”
How wonderful it is, that while I was aiming for my metaphorical ‘faraway planets’ during our pilgrimage in Rome, this woman near St. Peter’s—and others like her throughout the city—caused me to attend to those in orbit around me. She, the people I’ve encountered beside the highways in Kansas City, and the friends who ask for prayer are all instruments of God’s invitation to me. They cause me to look beyond my personal duties, recognize the souls in faces, and remember my daily mission–of love.
Our universal call to love requires sacrifice in small or great ways. Be it speaking words of encouragement, praying for specific intentions, offering dinner to friends with tight budgets, or handing over the largest dollar bill in our pockets, we are each made to offer all we have. We are created to give.
Almsgiving is one form of giving, and is especially close to Pope Francis’ heart. It is “a gesture of love which directs us toward those we meet,” he said on April 9th last year, during the Year of Mercy. “It is a gesture of sincere attention to those who come to us and ask our help. We should not identify almsgiving simply with a (hastily given) monetary offering, without looking at the person, and without stopping to talk, to understand what they really need.” Almsgiving, the Pope stresses, must carry within it the richness of mercy; the Italian word for alms (elemosina) derives from a Greek word referencing mercy.
If we are merciful in our giving, we are to give out of desire for another’s good and not let fear prevent us from acting. Pope Francis pointed to a common concern, that someone begging may use money to buy alcohol or drugs. “If he is drunk, it is because he does not have another path!” Francis explained. “What do we have hidden that no one else sees? Yet we judge a man who only knows how to cope with existence via a glass of wine?”
God has mercy on each soul; in our call to imitate Christ we are invited to share in this mercy.
A few weeks after Rome I met Michael in downtown Kansas City. John and I were walking to my car after the Chrism Mass, and we saw a person huddled over the pavement. Our steps slowed. Man or woman, we couldn’t discern. We stopped.
“Hey. Do you need help?”
Our words were soft. Night traffic swept loudly past us.
The person remained sitting, the crown of his or her head almost touching the sidewalk. John and I looked at each other. I had a twenty dollar bill in my jacket. I began to reach for it.
Then—the person jerked up.
This humbled soul had a thick, tangling white beard reaching from his creased, reddish-pink face. His head crooked left and right. His blue eyes shot open—and looked right into mine.
“Like St. Michael, the archangel, you know,” he said later. He spoke with a gleam in his eye of his Catholic upbringing, and his chapped lips made a crooked smile when he shared Mother Mary has never denied him anything he asked. His eyebrows scrunched when he mentioned his wife, his child.
As John and I knelt to join him on the sidewalk, he reached into one of his bags.
“I’m sorry, folks. Excuse me for a moment while I indulge.” He turned and took a swig from the bottle, hidden in the shadows. “I can’t help it.”
We were silent and watched.
“See, folks, to put it bluntly: I’m an alcoholic. I should stop but—” he shrugged and spread his hands wide, palms up.
He was drinking Vodka that evening, as he does many nights.
Michael put the bottle away. He prayed with us. He talked longer with us, using words that revealed a true childlike faith.
The night grew late.
We had to go home.
We left Michael and returned the next evening with my roommate. The three of us sat with him. We chatted.
Together we prayed. We reminded him how to pray each Our Father and Hail Mary in the Rosary. I felt the blessing of being a teacher in this small way, yet at the start of each decade he snapped his eyes shut, bowed his head, and rocked. He led us in prayer. In this way, Michael gave us greater blessings.
“The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you and still more will be given to you,” we read in Mark 4:24-25. God wants to bless us: God yearns for us to be open to receiving all good things. The woman in Rome, and countless others whose names are unknown or forgotten now, know the fullness of asking and receiving more than I do. They, the poor and meek, show me a softness of heart—a receptiveness of love—that for years I was very closed off towards. I did not want it. Now, I see:
There is such humility in begging. To recognize our needs, which we cannot fulfill on our own, is an opportunity to seek aid in our lowliness. To ask for help in any situation and capacity is to practice great humility. My recent encounters caused me to reflect on a life spent relying completely on strangers, without shelter of a job or home. Those who do so may be seen as pitiable, poor—yet they are incredibly blessed. Blessed, because they go through their days with such meekness. Blessed, because they have no earthly fetters to prevent them from fully trusting in God. Blessed, because Jesus boldly assures them—and all of us—in the Beatitudes, ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’
Throughout my child and young adulthood I was closed off to such blessings. I struggled in asking even for simple things like help from teachers on an assignment, permission to drive my dad’s car from school to a tennis match, or extra muscle to carry grocery bags. I didn’t want to tell my friends or admit to my parents I needed help: in my pride I shirked that potential humility of asking anything of anyone. In doing so, I denied my family the opportunity of loving me through giving. I blocked out the graces; I denied the blessings.
I, in the hardness of my heart, in my desire to be ‘independent’ and ‘strong,’ denied myself something that brings us closer to Christ—for He Himself made his needs known. In recognizing our reliance on others, we share in the sorrow of Mary and in the heaviness of reality she carries. We feel the burden of Simon carrying the cross, and the submission of self which Christ demonstrates with His life. These moments in Scriptures are shared by the meek. The reality of these moments are in the humble who have bowed their heads to receive the blessings of strangers. Blessed are they! The humble in spirit! Blessed are they! Those who depend on God’s gifts.
We must be like the woman in Rome, hands open to receive any blessings God gives us—and to receive without denying ourselves those gifts. He is a father, and if fathers so love and enjoy seeing their children’s happiness at the gifts given—so then does God.
“Why does the poor person enrich me? Because Jesus said that he himself is in the poor.” ~ Pope Francis
“Christian poverty is: I give to the poor what is mine, not the excess, but also what is necessary” for one’s own well-being. ~ Pope Francis
Do the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as unto the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” ~ Ephesians 6:6-8
“The world calls for and expects from us obedience and humility. Without this mark of holiness, our word will have difficulty in touching the heart of modern man.” ~ Pope Paul VI
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” ~ John 15:13